Elie Rekhess is a senior research fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center for Middle East Studies and an adviser to the Abraham Fund, which promotes coexistence between the Jews and Arabs in Israel. Born in Haifa, Rekhess, 53, served as a strategic adviser to Ehud Barak during his successful campaign for prime minister. He is currently an adviser to the Ministerial Committee on the Arabs in Israel. He was interviewed during a recent visit to the city.
Jewish Week: How has the attitude of the Arab citizens of Israel changed since the Oslo peace accords in 1993?
Rekhess: We are seeing contradictory trends. At the same time that the Oslo Accords marked a watershed in Jewish-Palestinian relations, they have sharpened internal conflicts in Israel proper between the religious and secular and between Jews and Arabs.
On the one hand, there is a trend towards integration [into Israeli society] on the part of Israeli Arabs. For instance, there is growing participation in elections and an opting for parliamentary politics. Their representation in the Knesset has grown substantially; this year they have a record 13 Knesset members.
Furthermore, the Israeli Jewish public accepts more and more the legitimacy of the Arabs as partners in the political game. They strongly criticized Barak’s decision to exclude them from his coalition.
What is the down side?
Since Oslo, Arabs in Israel have focused more on their national status inside Israel, unlike the past where they were more concerned about the PLO, Israel’s withdrawal from the territories and the struggle for a Palestinian state.
They have focused their struggle on obtaining equal rights as citizens of the State of Israel. But many Israeli Arabs feel there is a contradiction between Israel’s nature as a Jewish state and its nature as a liberal democracy because they claim that certain laws pertain to Jews only, such as the Law of Return. They say, how can we identify with an anthem that is purely Jewish, a flag with its Star of David or a state emblem with the menorah? Some Arab intellectuals and politicians propose to resolve this dichotomy by changing Israel’s nature so that it will no longer be a Jewish state.
How has Barak dealt with them?
I believe his main goal is to enhance the peace process. He did not include the Arabs in his coalition to ensure that a Jewish majority makes the difficult decisions. I think he has a liberal outlook, but this priority overrules everything else. Nevertheless, I believe he needs to upgrade the issue of Israeli Arabs and begin to include it in his four or five major priorities.
But has he not already taken some major steps in reaching out to Arab Israelis?
He has made a few significant appointments. Among them are the appointments of Arabs to the office of deputy minister of foreign affairs and to the prestigious defense and foreign affairs Knesset committee. He also appointed Chaim Ramon to be a liaison cabinet minister to update Arab Knesset members, and he set up a ministerial committee to oversee Israeli-Arab affairs.
However, the Arab community is still frustrated and is calling for a much more vigorous policy to address the sizeable gaps that separate Jews from Arabs in Israel. There are still gaps in the education system, budget problems in the Arab municipalities, housing difficulties and a lack of infrastructure in the Arab sector. Some initiatives have been promised, but the Arab public is skeptical because they have not yet been implemented.
There are those who fear that the Israeli Arabs who staged failed terror attacks last September may be the harbinger of things to come.
I don’t think those attempts represent a sea change in the political behavior of the Arabs in Israel. They were very serious and I don’t want to underestimate them, yet I believe that Arabs in Israel will continue to follow the democratic route of trying to exploit all the means within the boundaries of law.
What do you see in the future?
I believe that since Jews and Arabs are bound to live together (there are 1 million Arabs and 5 million Jews in Israel) a lot of effort should be put into education for coexistence. The Abraham Fund provides $700,000 in grants annually to support dozens of organizations that work towards that end, including supporting encounters between Jewish and Arab students, joint ventures in the field of music and environmental issues.